The Grammarphobia Blog

Old Nick and English deviltry

Q: Please help. Endless frustration – unable to find where “knick,” the English slang term for prison, originated. Thanks so much.

A: Oops, it’s “nick,” not “knick.” That’s why you’re having so much trouble.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the use of the noun “nick” in the sense of a prison, especially one at a police station, is of Australian origin. The first published reference is from The Sydney Slang Dictionary (1882), which defines “the nick” as a “gaol.”

But that’s just the beginning of the story. The verb “nick” has been used since the 16th century in the sense of to trick, cheat, or defraud. The first reference in the OED is from a 1576 work by the English dramatist George Whetstone: “I neuer nickt the poorest of his pay, / But if hee lackt, hee had before his day.”

And the verb has been used since the 17th century to mean to catch unawares or apprehend. The earliest citation for this usage is from The Prophetess, a play from around 1640 by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger: “We must be sometimes wittie, to nick a knave.”

Since the early 19th century, the verb “nick” has also meant to steal or pilfer. Here’s an example from an 1826 collection of English and Scottish poems: “Some there ha’e gotten their pouches picket, / Their siller an’ their watches nickit.”

Last but not least, “Old Nick” (later “Nick”) has been a name for the Devil since the mid-17th century. The OED says there’s no convincing explanation of how “Nick” came to be associated with deviltry.

One theory, according to the dictionary, is that the name “Nick” comes from Machiavelli’s first name, Niccolò. Another theory is that “Nick” is a shortened form of “iniquity.”

Whatever the origin of this usage, it’s not surprising that a word with such shady connections should come to mean a place where shady characters are held by the police.

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